I’m pretty sure I shoved my work calendar off my desk when an April email from the Sounders FC hit my inbox.
Stars, arrows and X’s were how I figured to clarify an MLS schedule with breaks, transfer windows and a U.S. Open Cup tournament intertwined with regular-season matches. Then the club released it would play a friendly on July 17.
An exhibition in the middle of the season? Check that. An exhibition in the middle of a week where the Sounders were already hosting the defending MLS Cup champions, defeating Atlanta on July 14, and archrival Portland on Sunday?
Sure, a meaningless Wednesday match makes total sense.
“(Scheduling) is one of the most complicated issues we have,” said Garth Lagerwey, general manager and president of soccer for the Sounders, before decoding the sport’s matrix.
Everything starts with FIFA, the governing body of professional soccer. Clubs have to be FIFA compliant in order to attract the elite players, who still prioritize playing for country over leagues.
To make that happen, there’s a FIFA calendar noting when international games or friendlies can happen – like the slating of the women’s World Cup alongside the men’s Copa America and CONCACAF Gold Cup, playing the finals of each on the same day to the ire of many fans.
Plenty of leagues across the globe simply take the FIFA calendar and design theirs, typically running from August to May.
But there are approximately 100 men’s leagues in the world. And not every country can play in December. So, it’s not just MLS being a relatively new league (established in 1996) with goals of being in line with the top leagues globally that puts a wrinkle in its scheduling.
Lagerwey said the league also has to consider weather in its mainly U.S.-based locale and stadium access for clubs like the Sounders and New England Revolution, who share stadium space with their NFL brothers.
True, soccer can be played in the snow. However, MLS would lose a matchup with the NFL over a desired Sunday in November.
To counter weather, gluttonous U.S. fall sports offerings and FIFA rules, MLS arrived at its spring to fall schedule. This season the league condensed its teams’ 34-game slate by a month to avoid one of FIFA’s fall windows and create more playoff drama with single-game elimination.
The MLS Cup title game will be Nov. 10, unlike last year’s Dec. 8 final due to a FIFA break in November.
When considering the varied starting lineups a MLS team could have in a season, the friendlies seem less like a marketing goldmine and more beneficial.
The Sounders drew more than 37,000 fans to CenturyLink Field on Wednesday for the 3-1 loss to Germany’s premier team, Borussia Dortmund. Not only did the match give midfielder Joevin Jones (paternity leave) needed minutes since last playing July 3, it gave Danny Leyva, a 16-year-old midfielder, experience against a quality opponent.
Plus the friendlies are a tradition for the Sounders. Seattle played three in 2010 alone and remain part of season-ticket holder packages – although the specific date is usually unknown until the targeted club nears the close of its season.
Add all of those layers and you understand why at one point 10 first-choice Sounders players were missing from the roster.
And also why it’s unavoidable, unless you sign less talented players.
“We want to be seen long-term as an ambitious club, not just in the U.S., but in North America and in our region,” said Lagerwey of building a roster that could sweep this type of big week in the future. The Sounders are 3-7-4 all-time in friendlies.
“It’s not easy,” Lagerwey continued. “Hopefully with a week we’re having right now, where you’re playing the defending champs in Atlanta, a team that knocked out us out of the playoffs last year in Portland and playing a top-10 team in the world in between, it shows that we’re pretty ambitious and we want to bring the best possible soccer product to Seattle.”